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Travel ban in Wuhan ‘modestly’ delayed spread of coronavirus in China: study

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Stringent travel restrictions imposed in China in an attempt to control the new coronavirus only “modestly” delayed the virus’ spread in mainland China, a new study has found.

The study published on Friday in the journal Science found that the travel ban imposed on Wuhan, China after the virus was detected late last year only delayed the overall epidemic progression by three to five days in the country’s mainland.

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Beginning on Jan. 23, Chinese officials placed Wuhan — believed to be the epicentre of the virus — under strict lockdown. In the days and weeks following, more than 50 million people across the country were placed under quarantine, as health officials scrambled to contain the viral outbreak.

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Researchers created a simulation using travel patterns, population data and internationally reported cases to determine how the travel restrictions impacted the spread of the virus.
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The study found that while the effect on China transmission was small, the travel ban in Wuhan did have a “more marked effect” at limiting the spread of the virus to the rest of the world.

The simulation found that there were 77 per cent less cases imported from mainland China when the travel restrictions were in place, than without the ban. But, researchers said this only lasted between two and three weeks, into mid-February.

After that time, research showed the number of cases internationally increased as more cases were imported from different parts of China.

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The study also found that even with the strong restrictions in place in mainland China, a large number of individuals who were exposed to the virus had been travelling internationally without detection.

Researchers said the study revealed that the 90 per cent travel restrictions to and from mainland China only “modestly effect the epidemic trajectory,” unless combined with public health interventions and behavioural changes that achieve “50 per cent or higher reduction of transmission in the community.”

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“Moving forward we expect that travel restrictions to COVID-19 affected areas will have modest effects, and that transmission-reduction interventions will provide the greatest benefit to mitigate the epidemic,” the study’s authors wrote.

Italy imposes sweeping quarantine

Meanwhile, on Sunday, the Italian government announced its own sweeping quarantine for the country’s northern regions, igniting travel chaos as it restricted the movements of a quarter of its people in a bid to halt the virus’ relentless march across Europe.

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Shortly after midnight, Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte signed a decree affecting 16 million people in the country’s prosperous north, including the Lombardy region and at least 14 provinces in neighbouring regions. The extraordinary measures will be in place until April 3.

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Should Canada follow suit?

In Canada, 58 cases of the virus have been confirmed with 29 reported infections in Ontario, 27 cases in B.C. and two in Quebec. At least two presumptive cases of the virus in Alberta have yet to be confirmed.

Despite the growing number of infections, the country’s chief medical officer Dr. Theresa Tam and other health officials have maintained that the risk of the virus remains low in Canada.

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And, Stephen Hoption Cann, a clinical professor at University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health told The Roy Green Show, that Canadians “don’t have to be worried at this stage” about going out in public to, for instance, the gym or to dinner.

“You just have to be careful if you’re going to the gym,” he said. “You want to make sure that you’re cleaning surfaces and washing your hands. If you notice somebody experiencing cold symptoms, then maybe it’s time to leave the gym.”

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Hoption Cann said, though, that individuals who are at a higher risk of infection — including elderly people or those with underlying health conditions — may want to “think twice” about attending events with large gatherings of people.

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Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital said employers and schools in Canada should prepare for potential absenteeism and should develop “work from home strategies.”

“I know that many conferences and large gatherings are being cancelled,” he said in an interview with The Roy Green Show. “I think this is going to be the new normal, at least for the foreseeable future.”

Is it ethical?

In a previous interview with Global News, Kerry Bowman, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana said restrictions like the ones seen in China do raise some ethical concerns.

“From an ethical point of view, if there are healthy people, which there obviously are caught up within quarantined areas, you elevate their risk of succumbing to the virus,” he said. ”

So there could be people within the quarantine zone that are perfectly healthy that could, in fact, be exposed to the virus.”

Bowman said that restrictions like those in China, and now Italy, would likely never happen in Canada, “mostly from a civil rights point of view.”

“We look at people’s rights — do we really have the right to quarantine so many people?” he said. “And likely we would say no.”

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Travel advisories

In the meantime, Travel Canada has issued a number of notices advising Canadians of the different levels of risk associated with COVID-19 in China, Hong Kong, Iran, Japan, northern Italy, Singapore and South Korea.

When asked by reporters on Thursday why Canada is not moving towards banning foreign nationals arriving from China, Iran or South Korea, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the country is making decisions based on recommendations from the World Health Organization.

“We recognize that there are countries that make different decisions,” Trudeau said at an event in Scarborough, Ont.

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Trudeau added that there is a lot of misinformation surrounding the virus.

“There is a lot of knee-jerk reactions that aren’t keeping people safe,” he said.

–With files from The Associated Press

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